When people find out that I am a college professor, one of the first questions they ask with increasing frequency and directness over the past year is “Do you have tenure?” My answer of “yes” is often met by a response along the lines of “you’d better be grateful for that,” especially when so many others in our society are suffering the daily humiliations and deprivations of unemployment and underemployment. And I do feel very grateful. There is not a day at Fordham that I do not feel hopeful about the liberative potential of Jesuit education (however mundane that might look on any given day), challenged and inspired by colleagues and students, and consoled by the privilege of practicing a theological life in New York City. But I have been thinking, under the pressure of our society’s deep financial crisis, that gratitude is not enough, theologically speaking. Or rather, I want to know how to better make of this gratitude a spiritual exercise in service of those who do not have the equivalent of tenure in their own jobs.
To speak of a theological comprehension of work is something that has some mild traction, in some quarters, on Catholic campuses, usually under the banner of policies that exemplify Catholic social teaching, or under the aegis of special seminars for staff and faculty on relating their work to Catholic ideals or spirituality.
But to speak of a theology of tenure in particular, or of academic labor in general (including the now prevalent but “silent” culture of adjunct faculty, or of contracts, or reappointment, tenure, promotion or search processes), is to speak somewhat “out of turn.” It feels like bad form.
I have found that academic labor, like other kinds of labor in contemporary higher education – cooks, custodians, security, maintenance – with which academic laborers ought to be in solidarity, is typically dealt with as an administrative decision, with primary official emphasis given to policies, norms, and bureaucratic procedures. To speak of a robust theology of academic labor, especially a theology built from a realistic appraisal of institutional practice, resides somewhere in the higher education instincts between “quaint” and “disloyal.”
But can Catholic higher education afford to have little deep and public investment in an effective theology of academic labor, especially in a time like this, when academic workers face such a tenuous job market and whose families are more fully subject to the threatening currents of the economy than at any time in recent memory?
It is hard to bring this up without people feeling judged, especially people who say that higher education is doing all it can to support its laborers. And financial crises are the worst times to think out loud about issues like this, because it can seem like piling on to an already vexing situation. And yet these hard financial times can also bring us to a deep consideration of the kinds of issues that are present and real but less severe at other times, and can be an occasion for creative rethinking in the midst of and beyond the crisis.
Professional societies in which I have been active for many years, such as the American Academy of Religion and the Catholic Theological Society of America, do not seem to have linked their identity to critical religious or theological analyses of the way higher education operates in general, or to the ways academic labor operates in particular. Perhaps it is not appropriate that they should, but I am also surprised at how absent the contemporary research on academic labor is from almost the entire conversation at our professional conferences. Certainly the stuff of who did or did not get hired/retained/tenured/promoted, of who is languishing in adjunct-land, of who is giving up the search for secure academic employment, of who cannot pay their student loans, of who can or cannot get something published and how important that is in one's local academic economy of career advancement, of how the culture of academic labor breaks according to gender, ethnicity and race, and theological orientation (but almost never, note, social-class background), of how lay, religious and ordained differently experience their academic labor – all these topics are not absent from religion conferences; they are only confined to spaces off the main program, in taxis, bars, restaurants, banquets. There are already operative theologies of academic labor today. One need only listen in the hallways.
And through it all I find that I cannot stop asking myself why it is that the great minority of us who have tenure and training in religion or theology are not organized more intently on how the system of academic labor gets structured and why. Or in other words: What is the duty of those with relative security to those with relative insecurity?
Tom Beaudoin, New York City